Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Erotic Economy of Fandom

Cultural studies scholars have long recognized the defiant nature of fandom; in early fan studies, fans are always somehow negotiating hegemony, or poaching texts, or resisting the mainstream. While writing Tramps Like Us, I reacted warily to these characterizations. While creative re-use of texts and resistance to producers' intentions were certainly elements of music fan culture, defining fans' experiences in that way did not quite fully characterize the appeal of fandom for fans themselves, who talked mostly about strong feelings of connection, knowing, and transformation.

There is a complex relationship between fan practices and the context of late capitalism in which those practices have been made most meaningful. I still believe, as I stated in Tramps Like Us, that fandom is inextricably linked to the commodification of culture since the late 1700s. And in my new work, Listening and Longing, I spend much time describing public, commercial, musical entertainment and its appeal to early consumer/listeners. But I remain convinced that we need to remain open to ways of thinking about what fandom is, and why it matters, beyond mere oppositional politics (however sympathetic one might be with the goal of that approach). I think it's the only way to accurately work out the entirety of fandom's history and significance.

Fans love stars, works, styles, culture. How do we think about that love more fully? I have, in the past, written about the passion of fans in terms of religious discourse. Another way to think about it, perhaps, is the "commerce of the creative spirit" as explained in Lewis Hyde's The Gift. First published in 1983, it was released in a 25th anniversary edition in 2007. It's essentially a series of essays that probe the idea of gifting in non- or pre-capitalist cultures, using the knowledge built from that exercise to better understand the value of creativity in Western industrial-capitalism.

Hyde's book begins by setting up a dichotomy of an “economy of eros” against an “economy of logos” (vaguely reminiscent of Ferdinand Tonnies's Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft), where “cash exchange is to gift exchange what reason is to enthusiasm.” Hyde then places artistic expression into this framework, arguing that artistic expression functions in the realm of eros and enthusiasm, having value not in the monetary power of contracted ownership but rather in the social bonds created by its ritual release and circulation. As he says,
The art that matters to us--which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience--that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with price...
Later, he explains:
It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.
Hyde means to give courage to those who live and work at the margins of the market economy and outside of the framework of achievement (making money) that has characterized much of American capitalism. What I really like about the book in terms of fan studies is the way in which his articulation of the gift—as the establishment of a bond that powerfully endures by being passed on—touches on many of the ways that fans describe their love of cultural commodities. And, in the end, Hyde is open to thinking about gifting as multilateral. When he's thinking only about artists, he reductively opposes them (in ideology and condition) to capitalists; when he's thinking about consumers, he better recognizes how messy things can be and how, sometimes, despite one’s surroundings or the origins of the roles they inhabit, one’s emotions can imbue unexpected meaning to any action. As he says, “The conflict between freedom and the bonds that gifts establish is not absolute, of course. To begin with, gifts do not bring us attachment unless they move us.” Or: “Within certain limits, gift wealth may be rationalized and market wealth may be eroticized.” In other words, people in a capitalist culture--especially in a capitalist culture—must work out, in each moment, the extent to which their actions will be erotic or rational. It seems to me that, at the experiential level, this is a useful way to think about the history of audience enthusiasm.

No comments:

Post a Comment